Bilkis Bano’s husband: ‘What can be worse than seeing your loved ones being killed?’

15 अगस्त को अच्छे आचरण के कथित टिप्पणी के चलते जिन्हें रिहा किया गया, वो हत्या और बलात्कार के मामले में 14 साल से जेल में बंद थे ...

In 2008, a special CBI court in Mumbai sentenced to life imprisonment 11 men for the crime. Earlier this month, the Gujarat government released all 11 convicts, sparking outrage.

TCN Staff Reporter

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NEW DELHI — Gujarat riots survivor Bilkis Bano, then 21 and 5 months pregnant, was gang-raped while she was fleeing her village, Radhikpur in Dahod district, after violence erupted in the state in the aftermath of the train burning incident at Godhra station, carrying kar sewaks (volunteers) returning from Ayodhya.

When she along with her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Saleha and 14 members of her family reached Chapparwad village, 20-30 armed men attacked her on March 3, 2002.

She, her mother and the rest women members of her family were repeatedly raped by one of the attackers. All members of the family were killed, including the infant who was smashed to the ground. 

She survived because she had fallen unconscious and her assaulters thought she was dead.

Among the assailants was the son of a medical practitioner who treated her father and lived right across the street, a man who owned a bangle shop that she frequented, another who owned a hotel in the neighbourhood where her family resided and the husband of an elected member of the Gram Panchayat. All these men had known her since childhood.

She was clutching Saleha in her arms when one of the men snatched the little girl away and smashed her head to the ground, killing her instantly. 

Her cousin, who had just delivered a baby girl just the day before, was gang-raped and killed along with her 1-day-old infant.

When she regained consciousness, she found herself naked and surrounded by the corpses of her family. She covered herself with a torn petticoat and ran up a hillock, spending the night in shock, unable to even mourn the unspeakable tragedy that had befallen her. 

The next morning, when she went looking for water, an Adivasi woman in a village gave her water and some clothes. She then approached a uniformed police officer who took her to the nearest police station in his vehicle.

She was the lone witness to the gang rapes and murders of her family members. She knew the names of her attackers and recounted the incidents in painful detail. 

But the head constable, Somabhai Gori, refused to register her complaint. He sent her to a relief camp, where she was reunited with her distraught husband Yakub Rasool, and could finally share with him their unthinkable grief of having lost their daughter, unborn child and so many family members.

Meanwhile, no inquest was carried out on the massacre as required by law, and the bodies of her family members were left to rot away. The doctors performing the post-mortem did not collect any biological samples or evidence. 

The bodies were decapitated after the post-mortem to prevent identification, buried in unmarked mass graves and salt was poured on them so that they would decompose faster.

Bilkis Bano, having lost everything she knew to be hers, fought on. She did all she could, as a Muslim woman, to ensure that not just the men who brutalised her and killed her daughter and members of her family, but also the policemen and doctors who tried to protect the criminals and hide their crimes, would be punished by the law of the land and spend many years behind prison walls.

On January 21, 2008, a special CBI court in Mumbai sentenced to life imprisonment 11 men — Jaswantbhai Nai, Govindbhai Nai, Shailesh Bhatt, Radheshyam Shah, Bipin Chandra Joshi, Kesarbhai Vohania, Pradeep Mordhiya, Bakabhai Vohania, Rajubhai Soni, Mitesh Bhatt, Ramesh Chandana — for the gangrape and murder of Bilkis and seven members of her family.

Bilkis, her mother, and three other women were raped and brutally assaulted. Of the 14-member group of Muslims from Radhikpur village, eight were found dead, six were missing. 

On August 15, 2022, as the country celebrated “Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav” to mark 75 years of the nation’s independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to respect and empower “Nari Shakti”.

That same day, 11 of the rapists and killers walked into azadi (independence) under Gujarat’s remission policy.

They were greeted with cheers and hugs, garlanded, fed sweets and their feet touched as the highest mark of respect.

One of them, Radheshyam Shah, said, “I feel glad to be out as I will be able to meet my family members and begin a new life.”

Bilkis Bano, now 40, has never lived a life, let alone normal or new, since that fateful day she sat looking around at the mutilated bodies of 14 family members, including her 3-year-old daughter and 1-day-old niece.

Shattered and numb after the “grave injustice” meted out to her by letting the culprits walk free, Bilkis does not want to speak to anyone. She is scared again for the safety of her family.

“Leave me alone,” she replied in rage and shock after reached out to her, seeking her comments on the development.

Later, in a written statement, she said, “Two days ago, on August 15, 2022, the trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again. When I heard that the 11 convicts who devastated my family and my life and took from me my 3-year-old daughter had walked free. I was bereft of words. I am still numb.”

“Today, I can say only this — how can justice for any woman end like this?” she questioned, saying, “I trusted the highest court in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice”.

She said her sorrow and wavering faith is not for herself alone but for every woman who is

struggling for justice in courts. “No one enquired about my safety and well-being, before taking such a big and unjust decision,” she added.

She appealed to the Gujarat government to undo the harm and give her back her right to live without fear and in peace. “Please ensure that my family and I are kept safe,” she pleaded.

CK Raulji, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA from Gujarat, who was part of the state government’s panel that recommended releasing 11 men convicted of the 2002 gang rape of Bilkis Yakoob Rasool, has defended the controversial decision on the grounds that the rapists were “Brahmins and have good sanskar (values).”

The banality of this statement that “they are Brahmins, accha ghar se hai (they belong to a good family)” is so insanely internalised that it is even okay to let rapists free who potentially can repeat the crime.

What can be worse than seeing your loved ones being killed?
Bilkis’s husband Yakub Rasool said the horror was of unimaginable levels.

“My wife was not only brutalised and violated as a woman but witnessed the brutal murders. What can be worse than that?” he asked.

He said he and his family are still unable to process the news that they have been released. “We had not expected it to happen,” he said and added, “We were trying to forget what had happened, but this news has made a healing wound fresh.”

“With their welcome, we are now scared for our safety,” he added.

Bilkis was awarded a compensation of Rs 50 lakh in 2019 by the Supreme Court, which also asked the Gujarat government to provide her with a government job and accommodation.

Rasool confirmed that the compensation had been made to her. Concerning a job, she was offered the post of a peon in Devgadh Baria but turned down the offer and sought employment for her husband instead.

“The government is yet to consider the application. We are also yet to hear from the administration about the accommodation,” he said.

In June this year, the Centre issued guidelines to states on prisoners’ release policy. Among the categories not eligible for special release are rape convicts and persons convicted with a sentence of life imprisonment.